Cable's siren call proves irresistible for three newsmen

The handshake and gaze are firm, but as Dan Rather talks about his future on the small cable network HDNet (average audience: 3 million), his voice falters. Asked just how difficult the transition from his 44 years at CBS News really is, he says, "Listen, I'm not a robot." It is a big and painful change, one he acknowledges he's absorbing in ways large and small.

"I was reading a preliminary script," he says, describing a scene a few days earlier as he prepared to assemble his first story for HDNet, "and when I got to the end, I had to catch myself. That was when I realized I wasn't going to say 'CBS News' again."

The Texas newsman, whose storied career has touched nearly every major event of the past four decades, is part of an elite club of former network news anchors who have taken up new posts in the smaller world of cable news. Former ABC "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel and former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw have moved to the Discovery Channel.

The news world that these three helped shape no longer fits their more substantive goals, say media observers.

Once a source of serious information, network TV has become an entertainment medium full of celebrity "information," as well as consumer-friendly "news-you-can-use," says Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN foreign affairs correspondent, who now teaches journalism at the University of Delaware.

He points out that in the 1970s the three broadcast networks devoted some 400 hours annually to news documentaries. "Today," he says, "I dare you to find a single hour of broadcast news documentary."

The newsmen's reasons for sticking with what is arguably a much younger man's, or woman's game, are similar.

"It's all but impossible to get prime time for a serious foreign policy broadcast," says Mr. Koppel.

"I'm addicted to news," says the 74-year-old Mr. Rather. "I'll go on as long as I can."

When Rather, Koppel, and Mr. Brokaw entered the news business, serious coverage of important events was an obligation, says former NBC foreign news correspondent Phil Bremen, who now teaches at Ball State University in Indiana. Keeping the public informed used to be perceived as essential to the functioning of a free society. "Today," he adds, "it's just another profit center."

All three former anchors are stretching their new wings quickly.

•Brokaw hosted a documentary July 16 on global warming, which has generated criticism for a perceived "liberal bias."

•Last month, Koppel participated in a peace conference in Jordan, and hosts a documentary about it today on Discovery Times.

•This past week, Rather announced his new weekly, hour-long news program that will air on billionaire financier Mark Cuban's high-definition network, with lofty aspirations.

"I want to make a difference and I want to do news that matters," says Rather, adding that he also feels an obligation to set a standard. "A large part of my being with this network is to lead," he says, referring to the traditions of his former network home. "All those journalists who were influenced by [Edward] Murrow," he says, "they called them 'Murrow's boys,' " says Rather, who left legendary newsman Murrow's network under a cloud of controversy.

Now, as he looks forward to his new post on HDNet, he references a line from "Death of a Salesman," one in which a character explains why he goes into a dark, unknown mine. Rather describes his new journey as "a wilderness, from which I hope to bring back the diamonds," as the character in the Arthur Miller play does.

While some observers have suggested that such active postnetwork anchor lives are unseemly, and ask why the three newsmen can't emulate the graceful elder statesmanship of a Walter Cronkite, others applaud their ambitions.

The audiences for the Discovery Channel newscasts will be modest next to broadcast network ratings, says Depauw University communications professor Jeff McCall.

But "the reporting work to be done by Koppel and Brokaw will get notice beyond the Discovery viewers," he says, adding that other media will rush to cover the conclusions reached by the big-name newsmen in their new jobs. "We're seeing that already with Brokaw's program on global warming."

Rather's future impact is less clear, say media observers. His new perch is much smaller, and the circumstances surrounding his departure from CBS may raise issues about his credibility.

But, says Mr. McCall, he will certainly draw the spotlight, not necessarily for the issues he's covering. "His startup at HDNet will surely get some media attention," says the media maven, "but more as a curiosity than for whatever Rather is reporting about."

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